"Don't ever forget there will be 30,000 travelling fans getting stuck into your boys too at every Test."
The Barmy Army loves banter, but it is also well aware of the serious affect its chants can have on opposition players. When Mitchell Starc urged Australian fans to “get stuck into” Ben Stokes (in the event he actually gets to play in the upcoming Ashes), the Facebook page of England’s cult band of travelling fans had those above words in response. A friendly enough warning, perhaps, but the Barmy Army can undoubtedly get under the skin. Just ask Mitchell Johnson, who sought the assistance of the Australian team psychologist after being subjected to the England fans’ infamous “He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right” chants in the 2010-11 Ashes.
Johnson returned the favour, inflicting mental scars of his own on England and their fans four years later, but the Barmies will again be back in numbers this series, in Australia, the country where it all began. It's been 23 years since the inception of one of largest and noisiest supporter bases, now a formidable driving force behind the England cricket team around the globe.
The Barmy Army have come a long way since their 1994-95 Ashes inception, and their metamorphosis from a loosely-organised but tight-knit supporters' group to the thriving business model it is today makes for a fascinating tale.
The Groundhog day familiarity of the previous two Ashes series continued in the Australian summer of 1994-95. England, the whipping boys, were suffering another thrashing at the hands of the home side. Unfazed by these on-field disasters, a group of back-packing die-hards led by Paul Burnham, Dave Peacock, and Gareth Evans, kept singing and chanting away on the banks supporting Michael Atherton’s beleaguered team in face of adversity. Befuddled by this raucous support amidst all the gloom, the Australian media christened them the 'Barmy Army', a chant popular at the football grounds.
Trailing 2-0 heading into the Adelaide Test, the Barmies went one step further and printed T-shirts flashing the words 'Atherton's Barmy Army' which would then go on to become England's Barmy Army. England went on to win the Test and the colourful and noisy Barmies erupted in a conga inside the ground, chanting, "We came here with our backpacks, you with balls and chains". Barmy Army, the brand, was thus born.
The T-shirts became an instant hit. With their pockets getting emptied on beer faster than English batsmen were departing from the crease, the profits from the T-shirt sales proved to be a real financial saviour for Burnham and Co., who spotted a little window of opportunity, one that would soon actually fund their future tours. On their arrival back home, they trademarked the name 'Barmy Army'. Soon they started travel options for fans and selling merchandise as well as using their newfound fame to set up charity fundraisers.
This, however, was just a short-term vision. "Earlier, Barmy Army was more of a lifestyle," Chris Millard, operations director of the Barmy Army, tells Firstpost. "It was a lifestyle that funded Paul to travel away, enjoy the tour and provide opportunity for everyone to enjoy at a low cost rate. So they weren't making a lot of profit off the people but they were doing it for the people. By the fans, for the fans, is the whole Barmy Army ideology," he adds.
It wasn't from any backing from a governing body, or external funding on which the Barmy Army survived in the nascent stages. It was simply the profits from those T-shirt sales. With tight purse strings, it was all about using the money strategically to grow the business and, with astute planning and a little bit of luck, grow it did. Their first commercial tour was in 1996-97 to South Africa, which is where they started getting recognised in a wider capacity. However, it wasn't until after the thrilling 2005 Ashes that their popularity as a global brand sky-rocketed.
It's a balmy December evening in Mumbai and Andy Thompson, the Barmy tour manager, is busy negotiating prices for a Ballroom party with the manager of the Fariyas hotel, situated in a plush locality of the western suburbs, ahead of the India vs England Test in the city. The discussion is intense and Andy is multitasking, sorting out the match tickets side-by-side. An ex-policeman, Andy was inspired by the atmosphere on his first Ashes tour in 2002 and soon started selling T-shirts for Burnham before joining the travel branch of the company on a part time basis in 2012, combining it with his full time insurance claims investigation business.
Generally it's madness on a tour but Andy manages to find some time, in fact a lot of time, from his busy schedule to explain to Firstpost the nuances of the business and what goes on behind the scenes in planning a tour. The Barmy Army's objective is to bring people together and make their lives easy by rolling out reasonable and flexible travel packages. There are two components to the company: The Barmy Army, which is the branded registered company and Barmy Travel, which looks after the travels, hotels, flight bookings, match tickets and logistics. The Barmy Army is used as the events and charitable brand.
The planning for a tour starts well in advance, especially for visits Down Under. Initial meetings between Barmy Army representatives and Barmy Travel are conducted to work out the logistics. The members then set off to the visiting country to shortlist the hotels and pubs (“Headquarters” to bring the supporters together) and get merchandising estimation. The email follow-ups then begin and finally different packages are rolled out in conjunction with travel partners and local agents. With a massive following on Facebook and Twitter (104K likes and 67.9k followers respectively), the marketing is quite aggressive on social media, with newsletters also rolled out to about 30,000 people every Friday. The members set out for the tour a few weeks in advance to make sure everything is in place.
Then there is the design of merchandise. The brainstorming sessions produce four to five designs for a tour which are briefed to the designer based out of London to create the images, out of which the couple of best ones are selected and sent for printing. The amount of merchandise produced is estimated on the basis of previous tours.
"For Australia, we sell by far the most merchandise," says Millard. "Some days in Sydney, we are looking at 500 shirts a day which are big numbers. It really depends on where you are. In India we will be selling 200 in Mumbai, which will be good. If we were in Bangladesh, we might have sold just 50 shirts for the whole tour," he adds.
The white polar shirts are famous ones and fetch far more money. They have the Barmy Army logo on the chest along with a quirky, funny print at the back which is related to the touring country.
A small part of the preparation also involves composing songs.
"We've got a list of songs that we will sing for the players," says Thompson. "They’ve all got their songs. When a new player comes in, we put it out on social media and people sit in pubs and discuss. They just throw around ideas. All we do is use the well-known tunes and put around the lyrics about a player. And the players love it. It's a badge of honour for the player to have his own Barmy Army song. Some players have more than one song like Joe Root who has three or four; he's a bit of a legend. Ben Stokes has got a couple. It's just an organic thing, anyone can get involved, send us a tweet, and put something on Facebook. Billy our trumpeter helps to rally the troops," Thompson adds.
The Barmies have already prepared a list for the upcoming Ashes and we can expect more creativity as the tour progresses. The real challenge, however, begins on the tour.
Traveling around the world, watching matches, singing, chanting, dancing and drinking: it may well seem like a dream job. However, there is a lot of effort behind the scenes in the making of a successful tour.
"Well, being pestered by journalists is one of the things," Thompson quips when asked about the difficulties of the job. "It can be quite demanding, especially if you've got problems with the hotel and the quality of service isn't according to people's expectations. Then, my job is to intervene and try and help. It's dealing with everyday problems like somebody slips over and falls and gets hurt and you've got to get him to hospital and call a doctor and things like that. Again I have to pick them up from airports and get them to the hotels. That aspect isn't really fun but you take the rough with the smooth," Thompson smiles.
It can get really tough on a long tour but according to Andy, "Learning people's name is the hardest thing because everyone's called ‘mate’ to start off. But you soon pick it up." On a serious note, getting people to reply to emails is quite arduous. Andy's love for the game drives him day in, day out. "I get my expenses for looking after the people. I get my travel paid for, you never become rich doing this," he says flashing an innocent smile.
"We actually were in Adelaide for the last Ashes and decided that we need to get back to New Zealand and sell our big home and downsize to be able to have money to travel with the Barmy Army. We wanted to watch cricket and catch up with all our friends," Carol Botawaithe, a retired UK-born English supporter who now lives in New Zealand and had travelled via Barmy Army for the 2016 India tour, tells Firstpost.
It's not just about the business or cricket, one of the important motives of the Barmy Army is bringing together the supporters from all round the world, socialising and rallying them to support the national team in unison.
The members meet together at those “headquarters” (mostly pubs around the world), some friends, and many unknowns. They get along, have a drink, chat and sing songs. Even the independent travelers can be a part of the Barmy Army at the ground or while socializing at the parties.
"It's been 10 years since I have been related to Barmy Army, says 74-year-old Hong Kong-based cricket fan Mike Pitcher, now retired but who has "worked hard all his life to enjoy retirement."
“I just find Barmy Army such a great bunch of people. They are always very vocal, good natured, friendly and humorous. So I know I can turn up here by myself and not only meet one or two people whom I have met before but also people who have never been with the Barmy Army before and that makes it very enjoyable," Pitcher adds.
A frequent question that comes to everyone's mind is why choose the Barmy Army over independent travel? What are the benefits?
The members are all protected with ABTA and ATOL certificates, so if there are any changes or cancellations, then everyone is covered whereas an independent traveler would lose out. The expertise and the experience of the Barmy Army form a big factor.
"People don't take into account the amount of time they spend researching on the internet whereas we've done all that research, it's just one phone call and we book it all. And if someone doesn't want to fly on a particular day, wants to come a day later or have a stopover, we can also sort that for him as well," Thompson explains.
In conjunction with the local agents, the ground transfers are taken care of right from airport pick-ups and drops to everyday stadium travel.
"Being a part of the Barmy Army is a big thing for people. Traveling away on a tour, you are guaranteed to be in with the Army wherever you go amidst the best atmosphere," says Millard.
"It's also safe. People know how safe the Barmy Army is as a supporters' group. We look after each other and there has never been any trouble with the Army wherever you go. 60 percent of the people are returners, they've been on the earlier tours and come again which proves the kind of service we provide," Millard explains.
It's the ease with which his travel is managed, making it comfortable and worthwhile, that has 74-year-old Pitcher impressed.
"It's easier and more convenient. You just get on the internet and they do it all depending on what you want. When you get here, everything is looked after for you so you haven't got to worry about getting to the ground tomorrow or anything like that," a relaxed Pitcher explains.
Anthony Jordan, a retired optician from Kent, who has come down for the India tour via the Barmy Army concurs with Pitcher. "So far, so good, they have organised it very, very well. I am looking forward to making good friends for years and years to come. That's what's it all about. They are well organised and they put some good tours at a reasonable price," he says.
The Barmies are a well-respected bunch around the world. However, when it comes to Australia, it's a slightly different experience.
"Don't get me wrong, the general feeling in Australia is they are pleased to see us. They are pleased to see our money as well because we spend a lot. What they like to do in the stadiums is to try and ramp up the atmosphere," says Thompson. "They throw abuse at you, they don't do what you call banter. They just do abuse and they try and get at us. They chanted “Kill, kill, kill!” to Jonathan Trott while Johnson was bowling — we wouldn't do anything like that even to the opposition. Doing five Tests in Australia is harder than doing five Tests in India. Sometimes in the ground, it can get a bit niggly but I won't slag them off too much," Thompson adds.
However, there are positives as well. A tour to Australia can be a source of extra profits as well. Approximately an average of 1000 supporters travel with the Barmy Army on the tour compared to 70 for India, 300-400 for South Africa, 250 for Sri Lanka and 500 for West Indies (all approximate numbers). And with the Ashes being the biggest rivalry, the merchandise sales also ramp up.
Ricky Ponting once described Barmy Army as the "best sporting crowd in the world," despite the fact that they tried really hard to get into his head over the years. Thomson, however, admits that on occasions the Barmies’ attempts to disrupt opposition players can backfire. In the 2013-14 Ashes, a pumped up Johnson got his revenge and others have been inspired rather than inhibited by the Barmy banter.
"I remember we were singing songs about Makhaya Ntini and he bowled three fastest balls of the Test match and took two wickets. The South Africans were singing 'Makhaya...Makhaya....Makhaya on fire'. So we started singing, 'Makhaya...Makhaya....Makhaya should retire'. He just looked at us and bowled quicker. So it doesn't always work,” Thompson laughs.
The last time England visited Australian shores, in that Johnson mailing of a series, they were hammered 5-0. The going can really get tough on a long tour with English team struggling but the Barmy Army is never short of motivation. If England are having a tough time, they rally behind the troops. "That's the whole ethos of the Barmy Army - Win, lose or draw, we are behind them and always will be," says Thompson. "We don't criticize them. If Cook mistimes a hook, the press can write, oh he shouldn't do that, he shouldn't have played that shot, poor shot selection. You won't find any of us criticising any of our players. Who are we to criticise them? We just get behind them whatever the situation.”
The Barmy Army are the unofficial 12th man of the England cricket team and the players in turn acknowledge their support. Over the course of 23 years, the Barmy Army have grown a really good relationship with the players. The players recognise a lot of the characters in the Barmy Army and see them as mates. They go out on a drink with them at the end of a match or a tour and even invite them into the dressing room to sing songs. The friendship between the players and the Barmy Army has been quite unique in cricket. The Army still has an ongoing relationship with Matthew Hoggard with “Hoggy's rules” which is all about how to behave at the cricket. The players also provide signed bats and shirts to help the Barmy Army out with their charity.
But do all opposition players appreciate the Barmies as much as Ponting?
"There are certain players who try their best to be nasty. People like (David) Warner. When they won the Ashes at Perth, instead of celebrating with his team mates, he turned around towards us and made obscene gestures, which we thought was pathetic to be honest," Thompson recalls.
"With Mitch Johnson, we did get into his head, but we still have massive respect for him. We have an awards ceremony every year and we made him our overseas player of the year. It's not nasty and not meant with any malice at the end of the day. If we can put a player off enough for him to underperform and the England team takes the advantage, then that's great. If you are in Australia, in a shopping centre and Johnson came along, all England fans will still stop and say hello, they wouldn't start singing, 'He bowls to the left, he bowls to the right.' We respect them because they are professional and elite sportsmen," an animated Andy adds.
The Barmy Army have achieved a steady growth over the years; the profits are increasing which are being reinvested into the company. There are six full time employees working from their headquarters in London and a whole lot of part-timers. They have further broadened the horizon and ventured into Rugby as well. Looking back now, one would be tempted to call Burnham and Co visionaries.
With Stokes' participation in jeopardy, memories of the horror last visit and a host of injuries at crucial juncture, this current England side can be glad to have this ever growing band behind them. When the times get tough, the Barmy Army will rise - dancing, chanting, and conga-ing their way through the stands to boost spirits.
The result of the Ashes might be in doubt, but from the Gabba to the SCG, when it comes to singing, there's only going to be one winner.